SALEM, N.J. — The Salem Oak, a nearly 600-year-old tree that had been a living symbol of this historic port city in South Jersey since its founding, stands no more.
About 6 p.m. Thursday, it toppled in the Quaker burial ground that spread out under its branches for most of its life, exposing rot that had slowly eaten away the tree from within.
Though the tree had been in declining in health for decades, the sight of its demise brought tears to Barbara Gentile’s eyes.
Her husband had mentioned Thursday that a large tree had fallen somewhere in town, but she did not think much of the comment until she saw the overturned oak — a fixture in her life since childhood — on her regular drive down West Broadway on Friday morning.
“No matter who you are or what you were, you never hurt the Salem Oak,” Gentile, 71, said. "It was an emotional thing for everybody.”
The tree fell due to “stem failure,” said Preston Carpenter, a member of the Religious Society of Friends in Salem.
“Our beloved living landmark no longer stands tall, yet we don’t have to look hard to remember that her roots, like ours, run deep,” the Salem Friends Monthly Meeting said in a statement. “Although she now rests, her memory has woven into the very fabric of our community.”
When it was named the biggest white oak in New Jersey in 2016 after the death of a Monmouth County tree, the oak needed wires to support branches and to anchor it to the ground. It also was equipped with a lightning rod to protect it from a strike. (It became the second-biggest white oak in the state after a larger one was found in Morris County in the intervening years, according to the Department of Environmental Protection’s Big Tree Register.)
In the 1990s, some of its branches were sawed off to lessen its weight and take strain off the trunk.
Since the 1950s, Davey Tree Expert Co. — contracted by the Friends in Salem — had cared for the tree, including insect treatment, fertilization, and establishing a lightning protection system and a cabling system to hold up the tree’s branches.
A Davey arborist went out to the property last week to check the cables and screws in the tree. Before that, the company’s last recorded arborist service to the Salem tree was in 2016, according to Christopher Marshall, an arborist and New Jersey licensed tree expert.
The trees do not necessarily need yearly maintenance, said Carpenter, an arborist himself.
Carpenter said the group planned to have the tree moved to a safe location, and then provide wood from it to local artists and woodworkers.
While the oak was located on the Quaker burial ground, the tree was never only theirs, Carpenter said, so the Friends intend to “share it” with the community. Carpenter said he hoped to have the tree’s remnants cleared within two weeks.
According to Salem County, the oak was estimated to be 565 years old, far surpassing the 200- to 300-year life expectancy for the species Quercus alba.
All during the day Friday, people came to the cemetery to view and take photographs of the fallen symbol, sharing stories about the ingrained memories in the area’s history.
Local tradition holds that the city’s founding father, John Fenwick, an English Quaker, met with the native Leni-Lenape under the oak and signed a treaty with them in 1675.
Charles A. Lindbergh flew over it in 1927 on a trip from Atlantic City to Wilmington after his solo journey across the Atlantic.
Several of the tree’s offspring are scattered about town, including one that was planted in Salem’s First Presbyterian Church cemetery in 1876 to mark the nation’s centennial.
Another seedling was planted along the George Washington Parkway, a road leading to Mount Vernon in Virginia, in 1932 to mark the 200th anniversary of the first president’s birth.
The people of Salem have revered the tree — and worried about it — over the years.
“The oak is Salem,” B. Harold Smick Jr., then president of the county Historical Society, told The Inquirer in 1973. “When a storm blows up, everybody is concerned about the tree.”